Tools that Get in the Way of Making Great Photographs
I’ve written a few times here about the struggle I am going through trying to develop a new side to my photography. I want to imagine photographs and make them. This is very different than going through life finding interesting photographs and taking them. Not better, just different, and something I want to develop.
This way of making photographs is an entirely new way of working, and though the end process is the same, the beginning process is very different. Finally realizing that was somewhat of a revelation to me. But once I had realized that, I still didn’t know how to start, although I felt better about floundering around. But now I feel like I am finally making progress, and I am beginning to imagine all kinds of photographs that I want to make. So much so that I started a special journal just to record my ideas. I call it a sketchpad, although it is not literally one.
It seems there were several pieces to this puzzle that had to come together and to find and fit each one was a struggle. I want to tell you about one of the last pieces of the puzzle that recently fit into place.
One of my mistakes was visualizing the tools I would use to make these new kind of photographs (I am not talking here about camera equipment so much, but rather lighting and setting). I thought that if I just started practicing with the tools, eventually the muse would visit. It was interesting and useful to practice with these new tools. But the muse did not visit. It was only when I let go of the tools, and was deep in cognitive meditation over this muddled state of affairs that I was reminded of a fundamental piece of advice about photography: that you need to take photographs of things or ideas that you are passionate about. If you do that one thing, the technique and all the rest will come along and the photographs will be great. If you are not passionate about the subject, the viewing audience will know it and feel it.
I think this is maybe one of the best pieces of advice going. Many photographers are passionate about photography: they shoot anything, because the joy of photography is utmost in their mind. These photographers will make good photographs, but until they combine the passion for photography with a strong interest in a subject the photographs will generally not be great. (Sadly, there seem to be even more “photographers” who are passionate mostly about cameras. They have an even longer path to great photography.) I think this is why most really good photographers organize their work around long-term projects: these are the subjects they are passionate about.
Mind you, I’m not trying to claim any high ground here–most of my photography has spanned a wide gamut of subjects; most of my photography has been about the love of photography. However, I did start out in landscape photography because of a love of nature and wild places, and I can remember how that love of both nature and photography yielded a synergy that was greater than the parts. As I’ve grown older and my human relationships have developed and deepened, I’ve grown a similar passion for taking pictures of people. But back to my point: when I finally dropped everything, and started some introspection about the people, causes and things that I was truly passionate about, all kinds of ideas began to form. I’m sure eventually some of those ideas will be able to make use of those new tools and skills that I acquired, but I learned my lesson: those are all ancillary considerations.
I think I can sum up my lessons learned in five points, in order of importance, for making this kind of photographs:
- Find your subjects (for which you have a passion)
- Brainstorm, imagine and visualize your photographs
- Write them all down religiously; organize your visions into a plan
- Bring your love of photography
- Use the tools and skills to make the photograph match the vision
Seems so basic in hindsight. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
Back to the photograph. This is the first photograph in a series that I am calling Separation. There will be more–I’ve got several in mind. Most of them right now are more complicated than this one and I’m going to have to figure out the logistics of getting them done. But the seeds of the ideas are there, and it’s a new world to conquer, and I’m excited again. I’ll have more to say about the theme as it develops. For now I’d prefer to let the photo say whatever it says to you.